BABA YAGA LAID AN EGG by Dubravka Ugresic

Book Quote:

“You don’t see them at first. Then suddenly a random detail snags your attention like a stray mouse: an old lady’s handbag, a stocking slipping down a leg, bunching up on a bulging ankle, crocheted gloves on the hands, a little old-fashioned hat perched on the head, sparse grey hair with a blue sheen.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (FEB 3, 2010)

Baba Yaga is a star player in Eastern European myths. The Russian version involves a crackly old witch ready to spark terror in children’s hearts. Croatian author Dubravka Ugresic, in her wonderful book, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, lays out modern-day interpretations of this age-old myth.

These “witches,” Ugresic tells us, are all around us—old women limbs curling from arthritis, shuffling along, waiting, pondering the end of their lives. The book is laid out in three sections—each a different take on the myth.

The first one touchingly details the relationship between an old woman and her daughter (the narrator). Living in exile in Zagreb, the old lady spends each of her days with fixed routines—a treat at the local pastry shop, a glance at the newspaper, dusting perhaps. Ugresic does such a brilliant job detailing this woman’s every action and gesture as she waits slowly for death to come, that the book is worth reading for this alone. “She uttered her truisms with special weight,” the narrator writes of her mother, “Truisms gave her the feeling, I suppose, that everything was fine, that the world was precisely where it should be, that she was in control and had the power to decide.”

Plagued by dementia partly from old age and partly from cancer that has spread to the brain and is barely contained, her one regret is not being able to see the city of her youth ever again. “She had snapped shut almost all of her emotional files. One of them was slightly open: it was Varna, the city of her childhood and youth.” Since she is not capable of travel, Mom sets the daughter off to find and record the city of her youth.

Some background information about the author would be relevant here. Dubravka Ugresic now lives in Amsterdam with a Dutch passport. When war broke out in Croatia in the early 90’s she took a stand against the nationalistic government for which she was forced out of the country as part of a “witch hunt.” An exile herself, you can detect the emotional weight of Ugresic’s own experiences here. In the story, when the narrator returns to her mother with pictures of her hometown now irrevocably changed, the mother can no longer recognize it. It’s a haunting and moving portrait not just of old age, but also of exile’s deep loneliness.

The second interpretation looks at three old women—Beba, Pupa and Kukla—who visit a newly founded spa retreat as part of their joint vacation together. The friends kick it up and have a good time even as the story individually zooms in on each woman’s life regrets.

To each of these women, love doesn’t (or hasn’t) come easy. The “egg” in the title too is based on a Russian folktale and it stands for love—one that is nearly inaccessible. “Love is on the distant shore of a wide sea,” goes the legend. “A large oak tree stands there, and in the tree there is a box, in the box a rabbit, in the rabbit a duck, and in the duck an egg. And the egg in order to get the emotional mechanism going, had to be eaten.”

So even if “Baba Yaga” has laid an egg, will it get eaten and by whom? In here Ugresic also does a wonderful job of showing up the beauty industry and all its attempts at keeping old age at bay.

The final interpretation is an essay laid out by a folklorist, Aba Bagay, who offers the general discourse and ideas behind the Baba Yaga myth. In a final fantastic touch, she slowly morphs into that crackling, bird-like creature a part of “Hags International.”

It is important to note here that writing about old age and women is not easy. This is the sort of material that can easily slip into gushy sentimentality. But Ugresic is a far better writer than that. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is funny, touching and even illuminating—but never, ever sappy. It’s going on my list for top reads for the year. Her interpretations of the original myth are searing and inventive. “They shuffle around the world like armies of elderly angels,” Ugresic writes of these sweet old ladies. In other words, Baba Yaga is only as scary (or as endearing) as the old ladies we all know. That ought to reassure the young ones, shouldn’t it?

In her wild, fun and imaginative book, Dubravka Ugresic turns the myth of Baba Yaga on its head. While doing so, she validates what Bette Davis once said (and what one of Ugresic’s characters also acknowledges): “Old age is no place for sissies.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Canongate U.S.; Tra edition (February 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Dubravka Ugresic
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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February 3, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Allegory/Fable, Croatia, End-of-Life, James Tiptree Winner, Literary, Russia, Translated, World Lit

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